OLPC: the best designed notebook in the world

OLPC: the best designed notebook in the world

Summary: The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is the best-designed notebook computer in the world. It just isn't designed for you.


The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is the best-designed notebook computer in the world. It just isn't designed for you. Get over it.

Criticism of the OLPC centers on the fact that it isn't like the notebooks adults use. As the ASUS Eee shows a low-cost conventional laptop can be powerful.

But that misses the point. The OLPC is a fundamental rethinking of the computing experience. One that is long overdue.

olpc_picture.jpg [photo courtesy OLPC]

Who is the target market? Children. And as anyone who's had children knows, kids can be pretty hard on the furniture.

OLPC brought in one of the top industrial design firms in the world, Design Continuum, to drive the design process, as well as Yves Behar, an industrial design superstar from San Francisco. That's why it doesn't look like your father's notebook. Or your Dell.

Great industrial design is why the iPhone is blowing away every smartphone out there. Why the iPod has an 80%+ market share. And why you can't find a Wii.

Don't kids deserve great industrial design?

OLPC has gotten it right This child's review of the OLPC suggests that Laptop.org has gotten it right. As a 9 year old's father writes:

So Rufus is using his laptop to write, paint, make music, explore the internet, and talk to children from other countries.

Because it looks rather like a simple plastic toy, I had thought it might suffer the same fate as the radio-controlled dinosaur or the roller-skates he got last Christmas - enjoyed for a day or two, then ignored.

Instead, it seems to provide enduring fascination.

I had returned from Nigeria not entirely convinced that the XO laptop was quite as wonderful an educational tool as its creators claimed. I felt that a lot of effort would be needed by hard-pressed teachers before it became more than just a distracting toy for the children to mess around with in class.

But Rufus has changed my mind.

With no help from his Dad, he has learned far more about computers than he knew a couple of weeks ago, and the XO appears to be a more creative tool than the games consoles which occupy rather too much of his time.

[emphasis added]

OLPC roots While the OLPC's industrial design chops rival Apple's, its real innovation is the software. Building on MIT educational theorist Seymour Papert's work - he invented the Logo language - the OLPC's re-thinks the relationship between man and machine.

OLPC differences The OLPC has activities instead of applications.

Activities are distinct from applications in their foci—collaboration and expression—and their implementation—journaling and iteration.

The collaboration comes in the form of built-in mesh networking that allows all local OLPCs to talk to each other.

By exploiting this connectivity, every activity has the potential to be a networked activity. We aspire that all activities take advantage of the mesh; any activity that is not mesh-aware should perhaps be rethought in light of connectivity. As an example, consider the web-browsing activity bundled with the laptop distribution. Normally one browses in isolation, perhaps on occasion sending a friend a favorite link. On the laptop, however, a link-sharing feature integrated into the browser activity transforms the solitary act of web-surfing into a group collaboration.

The connectivity is powerful. Young Rufus in England is conversing with kids who send him messages in Spanish. How does that work?

Expression is the goal of the activities and collaboration. Rather than downloading music, the laptop is equipped to create music. The rethinking extends to the file system:

The objectification of the traditional file system speaks more directly to real-world metaphors: instead of a sound file, we have an actual sound; instead of a text file, a story. In order to support this concept, activity developers may define object types and associated icons to represent them.

Another aspect of the system's UI is a focus on the Journal. This is more than written documentation of what a child has done.

The Journal combines entries explicitly created by the children with those that are implicitly created through participation in activities; developers must think carefully about how an activity integrates with the Journal more so than with a traditional file system that functions independently of an application. The activities, the objects, and the means of recording all tightly integrate to create a different kind of computer experience.

I'll be interested to see how children who grow up with the OLPC think about computers. I fear we have a generation of children whose creativity has been permanently stunted by the desktop metaphor.

The Storage Bits take Given how much effort is going into bolting on collaboration capabilities to our networked computers, OLPC has the right idea: build in collaboration from the beginning.

OLPC's biggest mistake is not marketing the OLPC in the industrialized world first. All the good intentions in the world won't convince the 3rd world that something is good unless it has been embraced by the opinion leaders of the 1st world.

Nicholas Negroponte, the driver behind OLPC, can still turn that around. If I were Steve Jobs, I'd be taking a very close look at this machine to see how it could be used to extend the Apple brand down to the primary grades. And, incidentally, further undermine Microsoft's hegemony.

Michael Dell could learn a few things too.

Update 12-21-07: One of the commenters noted that Birmingham, Alabama has signed an MOU with OLPC to buy 15,000 units for grades 1-8. Bravo! I also added Mr. Negroponte's name to the story. Update 2: Good video of Yves Behar talking about the design of the OLPC here.

Update 12-24-07: Alert reader George Mitchell commented on this story MIT spinoff's little green laptop computers a hit in remote Peruvian village. The money quote:

ARAHUAY, Peru: Doubts about whether poor, rural children really can benefit from quirky little computers evaporate as quickly as the morning dew in this hilltop Andean village, where 50 primary school children got machines from the One Laptop Per Child project six months ago.

Comments welcome. BTW, OLPC has a beautiful web site. Check it out.

Topics: Laptops, Collaboration, Mobility

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  • You know, I was thingking the same thing. The OLPC would be great for

    schools right here in the good old US of A. I would think they should hire somebody to sell the idea to schools HERE. If we get a critical mass of schools using them here in the US, there will be lots more applications, sorry, that is ACTIVITIES available for them. Of course all of the new activities with collaboration and sharing baked in.

    Anyway, with the OLPC in production, there is going to be a whole lot of research done on 1:1 computing, and user interfaces for kids. Not that the people at OLPC have not been doing a lot of research, but, we need to get the whole world engaged.

    Well, it will be interesting to see how the OLPC sells. If it gets rave reviews, and we get some first world school districts using it, it just might take off in a big way. At the very least, they have forced the world to re-think computers for kids.
    • I agree...but...

      I think the concept is great - and if it works, why not? Anyone know the proposed prices on these OLPCs?

      I actually like what it looks like and what it does for kids.

      Now for kids who have experienced traditional laptops [HPs, Dells...etc] ..will they have the same experience and more with this OLPC. My son (4yrs) uses my wife's laptop a lot and it's amazing his skills at the computer [he gets it from his daddy, a computer geek].

      I wouldn't mind investing in the new laptop for him depending on if he can match the same experience he has had on my wife's HP laptop and my Dell laptop.

      That is my main concern, though I am sure it'll work great for kids overall...
      • The price to start is right at $200, but they hope to get it down to $100

        over time. You should buy one for the give one get one program, I think they are still available until the end of the year. You give $400, and you get one, a child in a developing country gets one.

      • The link is here to order an OLPC:

      • Try the XO LiveCD

        See a discussion of the XO live CD here:

        You can then let your kid answer the question. :)
  • Now this is what I am talking about!

    A useful review of a new product by someone who observed the target actually use the laptop. A good, clear, concise assessment of how it works and its effects on the user.

    Good job!
    Confused by religion
  • It's not for me

    and that is the main point. If you want to bring the poor into the world's economy and offer them potential employment, then giving them a computer that no-one else uses, with an OS that is still to get to single digit usage is not really a good idea.

    Kids deserve a level playing ground.
    • Of course not

      [i]It's not for me[/i]

      No, it's for those who are learning.

      [i]Kids deserve a level playing ground.[/i]

      Go for it. Buy the kids in Guyana some ThinkPads and support contracts, plus training. I'm sure they'll appreciate it.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
    • And giving them...

      A "super duper uber professional" computer is a smart thing? Next you'll be suggesting the "rich west" manufacture BMW's for them, so that they can experience the wonders of modern professional automobiles.
    • One wonders how children ever grow up and learn how to drive cars ...

      After being stuck with tricycles for so long. Perhaps they should be given their first car in kindergarten. On the other hand perhaps Robin is right. Perhaps certain modifications are appropriate for those items used by children. Perhaps their is only one product in the world that demands to be used by its every inhabitant. A product that specializes in arrogance and elitism. Amazing!
      George Mitchell
      • Message has been deleted.

    • What the above three said nt

    • You just don't get it do you. If you learn one OS, you can easily move to

      another one. You learn one word processor, you can easily move to another. You learn one spreadsheet, you can easily move to another. You learn one drawing program, you can easily move to another. I could go on for a long time. But even then, even when they get a little older, they can save the money of Windows and Office and continue with a Linux based OS on an adult sized computer.

      What all of the operating systems were too bloated, and the office suites were all too bloated, and it was all proprietary, and the hardware was more expensive, and they had to pay a lot of money for the OS and office suite. What if Nicholas Negropronte never had a dream?

      They would never have a computer at all.

      Isn't it so much better that a whole lot more kids will have a computer? How many poor kids in developing countries would have computers if we left it up to Microsoft?
      • Obviouslly more then if it were left up to


        "Here you go kids, learn to search the web! Be sure to click on "ads by google" as much as you can! Oh, by the way, it really does not run Google Apps as, well, there really is not much of an internet out here. Wait: If there is no internet, then why are we doing this if we can not get these kids to add some revenue to our pockets via advertising? Sorry kid, give me that thing back!" :)
        • Outside networking is not necessary for these computers, it is just a bonus

          so that kids can read about the world around them. Even without connection to the internet in general, they can collaborate with each other and learn networking. You also have to remember that the majority of content on the internet is in English, and of little use to many of the kids. But, hopefully kids will create their own local content. It would be interesting to see kids learning how to blog!! But, remember, these things have a camera. Wouldn't it be cool to see these kids adding their village to Wikipedia??
    • Education 1st - then employment

      Tony, get a grip. Some 3rd world kid is going to get a job running spreadsheets for
      Halliburton just because she started with Windows as a 7 year old? Are you nuts?

      Let's get the kids reading, researching, creating. Then let's trust they'll figure it out.
      People always have.

      R Harris
    • Hmmmm

      That TRS-80 that I learned on really hampered my ability to operate a computer. The OLPC has about 1000 times the capability and no tape recorder. I miss that old tape recorder. BASIC rules! Are they still teaching BASIC. It was a great way for kids to understand sequential thinking.
      • Python! (not BASIC)

        The OLPC actually comes with a little Python IDE, and many of its apps are written in
    • OK

      I teach slum kids part time(as a volunteer effort with others). Maybe you'd like to sponsor laptops for these kids? We'd really(no sarcasm) be grateful and you could give the kids whatever computer and OS you feel they 'deserve'.
  • You're spot on here

    My criticism of the OLPC has always been its distribution model, not the PC itself. It really is revolutionary in many ways. Get these bad boys in the developed world and watch them take off...Better yet, get the software out in the community and take advantage of the Sugar interface on a variety of desktop and laptop computers for kids to use.

    Chris Dawson